13 July 2008

ASCII

I read Matthew Kirschenbaum's Mechanisms today. This little aside caught my attention:
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s character sets proliferated; IBM, for example, had its own proprietary 8-bit character set called EBCDIC that saw use on mainframe computers well into the 1980s. By the early 1960s, however, the smart people recognized the need for a standard and so ASCII was born in 1963, and was officially adopted by the American National Standards Institute in 1967. ASCII was (and is) a 7-bit character set. (Paul E. Ceruzzi offers up the suggestion that one of several reasons ANSI adopted a 7-bit rather than an 8-bit code was because it was felt that eight holes, punched across a thin piece of paper tape, would render the paper weak and vulnerable to tearing. Thus we find that ASCII, which defines the conditions of electronic textuality we known today at absolutely the most fundamental level, is literally informed by the materiality of paper.) -Kirschenbaum (237-8)
What a fun little fact to tuck in there -- especially since Kirschenbaum's project often invokes oldskool biblography in the context of software studies. In short, the book calls for a closer look at the material constraints and affordances (in his terms, the "forensic" and "formal materiality") of any digital "text."

I found some more (though significantly less interesting) information on the history of ASCII at ASCII World, a site "completely dedicated to the anything and everything related to Text and ASCII." (...but "things don't stop at Operating Systems"! The fun continues with a FAQ, the details of a Software Development Initiative, and some Reference Works!)

All in all, a good day of reading, made better by a picnic along the Esplanade. Avocado sandwiches from Mariposa Bakery -- highly recommended.

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